Tag Archives: penguin random house

The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar

The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar Title: The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock
Author: Imogen Hermes Gowar
Publisher: Harvill Secker, Random House
ISBN: 978-1911215721
Genre: Literary Fiction, Historical
Pages: 496
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

The year is 1785 and merchant Jonah Hancock has to cope with the tragic news that one of his captains has sold his ship in exchange for a mermaid. Sounds intriguing, isn’t it? I was sold at this premise. But wait a minute. There is more to this story which is more fascinating to me. The side story of Angelica Neal that quickly comes to fore. Neal is London’s most beautiful courtesan who wants to marry rich and secure a future for herself. And who better than Mr. Hancock who has a mermaid to be put on display and make easy money? And all of this is possible through Mrs. Chappell’s brothel (there is more to what meets the eye really) and given she has a soft spot (or so it seems) for Angelica.

Phew! That is not it by the way. There is a lot more going on in the book and let me tell you, that despite its size (500 pages), this is one racy romp of a read. There is a lot of decadence in this book (which I love by the way), there is misery, power, envy and fantasy. If not for the mermaid angle, I would classify this book purely as historic fiction, but let the two merge and work its magic on the reader. Also, might I add the magic of London (and its claustrophobia, its stench, lecherous men and grotesque women) is brought out beautifully by Gowar.

Angelica Neal’s character is so strong that she overpowers everyone else (in some bits and parts) and in a very good way because you’d want her to appear more as the book progresses. There is also a surprise in the form of Polly but I won’t ruin it for you by talking about her. You might want to discover her yourself.

“The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock” is set in a vivid and uproarious time. It is the kind of book that must be read again and more than anything for its female characters that stand out and well-deservedly at that. Mrs. Chappell, Angelica and Polly (there is also Mr. Hancock’s niece who makes a brief appearance) are the heroes of this book in all honesty. This is the kind of book that will keep you up all night and you wouldn’t want it any other way. “The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock” is all rolled into one – a comfort read (yes, at most times) and a thriller, literary fiction with the much-needed historic setting.

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I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death: A Memoir by Maggie O’ Farrell

I Am, I Am, I Am - Seventeen Brushes with Death by Maggie O' Farrell Title: I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death: A Memoir
Author: Maggie O’Farrell
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 978-0525520221
Genre: Memoir, Non-Fiction
Pages: 304
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

The book is about the author’s seventeen near misses with death. I could say this and explain the book to you but that would not be fair to it. The book is a lot more than just this (though this is the core, mind you, as the title and sub-title will tell you). And yet what I take from it is the fragility of life, sometimes the joy in living and the fact that you still move on, despite the seventeen near misses with death. “I Am, I Am, I Am” is a testament really to living and living with life’s bittersweet moments.

There is no melodrama or sentimentality when it comes to this book. There is a lot of emotion though, but nowhere does it get emotional to the point that it tends to feel fake. O’Farrell’s writing is raw, straight from the core of the heart, to the point of it being exhausting at times (which I was prepared for given the nature of the book) and yet, the book lifts you from the ordinary in so many ways.

Death is something we do not speak of casually or even for that matter most seriously. It is something that we take for granted till perhaps you face it and if you have had close shaves with it seventeen times, then you know better than to think you are immortal or life is long and so on and so forth. “I Am, I Am, I Am” in that sense uproots your ideas of death and life, about how fragile we are and yet as humans we don’t admit it.

Maggie’s experiences could’ve been anyone’s really and even if they aren’t she makes them ours through the power of her writing. When she is on the verge of drowning, so are we. When she suffers, so do we. The book is divided by body parts that were involved in these brushes, sometimes even the entire body and then you see the magnanimity of situations she was in and as a result of that, you empathize no end.

The poetry of prose is also hard to bear, the events intense (some of them) and often drive you to tears. Compassion is strengthened and you bring yourself to find moments of happiness, hope and joy throughout. Maggie O’Farrell has put her heart out on paper and whether or not you have read her novels, you should read “I Am, I Am, I Am” for sure.

Feel Free: Essays by Zadie Smith

Feel Free - Essays by Zadie Smith Title: Feel Free: Essays
Author: Zadie Smith
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Random House
ISBN: 978-0241146897
Genre: Essays, Non-Fiction
Pages: 464
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

My association with the works of Zadie Smith started somewhere in 2003, with White Teeth. It was one of those books that are actually unputdownable (I have always been of the opinion that terms such as these are nothing but marketing gimmicks). Since then, Smith has been one of my favourite writers and with good reason. Her prose is like biting into a plum – tart and sweet and almost awakens you from your stupor. It makes you stand up and take notice of how the world works and perhaps what it always was. Smith doesn’t mince her words. Her characters are everyday people who speak their mind and this is also reflective in her new collection of essays, aptly or ironically (given the world we live in) titled, “Feel Free”.

“Feel Free” to me is one of the books of our times. The kind of book that doesn’t preach but makes so many relevant points that you want to see the world and put it so eloquently as Smith does. It is the collection of essays which are spread over five sections – In the World, In the Audience, In the Gallery, On the Bookshelf and Feel Free. These sections pose questions that we recognize and perhaps want answers to: What is the Social Network? What is joy and what is the tolerance of it, if there is something like it? How many kinds of boredom make up life? Who owns the narrative of black America? There are many such questions over a diverse range of topics and that’s what makes Zadie’s essays stand out.

Feel Free speaks of pop culture, culture, social change, political debate, the ever-changing fabric of society and what it really means to be human in the 21st century. Some of these essays have appeared before and some are new. At the same time, all of them are relevant and essential to most areas of our lives.

Smith’s essays are sometimes written with the perspective of an insider, but mostly she is an outsider looking in. It isn’t difficult to understand Smith and to me that was the most brilliant aspect of this collection. For instance, when she writes about a book, you want to get up and go read it. When she speaks of Joni Mitchell, you just want to listen to “River” and “Circle Game” on loop. To me, that is the power of great writing.

Essays are often tough to read and since they are so personal in nature, it becomes even more difficult to gauge the place they are coming from. This does not happen when you are reading “Feel Free”. Zadie’s essays are personal and yet appeal to all. The universal quality of her words is too strong to not be understood and related to. “Feel Free” is the collection of essays that needs to be savoured and pondered on. The one that you will not forget easily.

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout Title: My Name is Lucy Barton
Author: Elizabeth Strout
Publisher: Random House
ISBN: 978-1400067695
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 208
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

There are times when you stumble on books, do not read them, or read a couple of pages and drop them. You pick them up again and do not get past a couple of pages. You pick it up again (the specific, dreaded book in question) and yet you just cannot seem to make it beyond the thirtieth page or so. Till one fine day, you pick it up and voila! You just cannot seem to stop reading it. In fact, you don’t want the book to end. You want it to continue, to unravel its secrets, the words that consume you and in turn make you think things about your life.

Art is almost a replica of life. They say it imitates life. I say, it just is. “My Name is Lucy Barton” by Elizabeth Strout may not resonate page by page or in the overall sense of plot, but there are places where it will take your breath away (it at least did that to me). It is a very regular story or so it seems.

Lucy Barton is unwell. She is undergoing a minor surgery and is in the hospital. It is the early 90s (not specified but you can more or less figure). Her mother visits her and stays with her for five days. The book opens with them speaking of the old days – of Lucy’s childhood, her siblings and how they lived.

That is when the secrets tumble and questions come to the fore – them being born to poverty, the time her parents locked her in a truck with a snake (why), the time her father humiliated her brother, calling him a “fucking faggot” in front of everyone after he was caught trying Mom’s high heels. We can see the family is beyond dysfunctional and redemption of any kind. Lucy is wounded, and yet she is happily married (or so we think), with two children and is on the way to becoming a writer.

Strout speaks of marriage, family, children, love, homosexuality and so much more through Lucy. And yet she makes Lucy such an unreliable narrator that you are confused but want to know so much more and after a point you do not care, if Lucy is telling the truth or not. You believe her anyway. The book is pretty much rooted in Lucy’s childhood and her reactions to things as she is an adult comes from a deep, dark, lonely place.

On the surface, “My Name is Lucy Barton” may not seem much of a book, but as you dive into its pages, you can see it for what it is and if you are looking for more answers, then there’s the sequel “Anything is Possible” (which I need to get to as soon as possible). Strout proves that brevity could most of the time be the best tool used in fiction. This book is less than two hundred pages and yet it is not a fast read. You will mull and ponder over what you read. Perhaps even go back to some sentences.

Here are some of my favourite quotes:

“It interests me how we find ways to feel superior to another person, another group of people. It happens everywhere, and all the time. Whatever we call it, I think it’s the lowest part of who we are, this need to find someone else to put down.”

“Lonely was the first flavor I had tasted in my life, and it was always there, hidden inside the crevices of my mouth, reminding me.”

“You will have only one story,” she had said. “You’ll write your one story many ways. Don’t ever worry about story. You have only one.”

“But I think I know so well the pain we children clutch to our chests, how it lasts our whole lifetime, with longings so large you can’t even weep. We hold it tight, we do, with each seizure of the beating heart: This is mine, this is mine, this is mine.”

“But the books brought me things. This is my point. They made me feel less alone.”

“Because we all love imperfectly.”

South and West: From a Notebook by Joan Didion

Title: South and West: From a Notebook
Author: Joan Didion
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 978-1524732790
Genre: Non-Fiction
Pages: 160
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 4/5

Joan Didion’s works are not easy to read. But once you read her books, there is no stopping. I remember reading “The Year of Magical Thinking” when it was first published in 2005 and wrenched completely to the gut by its honesty. Since then, I haven’t missed reading a single book by her. My copy of her latest, “South and West: From a Notebook” came all the way from Shakespeare & Co. in Paris, a gift from my sister. Anyhow, now back to the book.

Her essays are introspective unlike her fictional works. Don’t get me wrong here, I adore her writing, just that I feel her non-fiction is stronger than fiction. This thin volume contains two pieces: the first, a collection of assembled jottings in her notebook from a road-trip through the South in 1970; the second piece is about the Patty Hearst trial.

The first piece forms the bulk of the book – with details on everything South as they traverse that landscape – from its swimming pools in motels, to meeting regular people, knowing their views on class and racism (nothing has changed since then or so it seems) to the sedentary life lead there. At the same time, her keen eye for detail and candidness, makes you wish there was more to this book and more so to this piece.

Didion makes the South alive for you – every nuance, twitch of the faces of the people she observes and interacts with to the weather (more so important for the South) is pat down to the last nitpicking detail and as a reader you are only too happy for it. At the same time, you also feel that it could very well have been a travelogue (or is it?) with rich descriptions of the landscape and the minor details that are paid attention to.

What struck me about the book the most is that though written in the 70s, it still is so relevant today given the views of the people in the South – where discrimination – racial and classist are taken as the norm and no one seems to object – it was almost as though this were a warning for the times to come with the current President of the United States of America.

The second piece in the book is too brief – it finishes even before you have started reading it which is quite a pity. It is just a collection of notes and sketches (which of course what the entire book is) and nothing else adds to it. In fact, I had to go to Google to know more about the Patty Hearst trial.

All said and done, “South and West: From a Notebook” is a book which perhaps isn’t meant for all – or I don’t even know if it will be enjoyed by all. I wouldn’t recommend it to a beginner to Joan’s works but for someone who is familiar with her writing, you will love it, just as I did, so please pick it up.

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